What happened last year:
Maryland and Illinois played twice in the 2016-17 season, and both games went the Terps’ way.
The first was difficult to watch. The Illini were blown out 84-59 on Dec. 27 in College Park, behind now-departed point guard Melo Trimble and a balanced Maryland offense. Trimble dropped 20 points and Justin Jackson and Anthony Cowan each added a dozen for Maryland. The Illini shot an abysmal 35.6 percent from the floor for the game; just 26.7 percent in the first half. The only Illinois players who managed double-digit points were Malcolm Hill (21 points) and Mike Thorne (10 points). It was just another one of John Groce’s 20 point losses that had fans up in arms.
The teams’ second meeting, in Champaign, was a much better contest. Although the Terrapins took the victory 62-56, the Illini had a slight edge at halftime led by Maverick Morgan and Leron Black. But once again, poor shooting (just 27.6 percent in the second half) would sink the illini.
How Illinois can win:
A lot of these matchups will rest in how the Underwood system develops with these players, which is made up of a lot of new faces. Among the few returners from last year, only Michael Finke and Leron Black really saw significant minutes throughout the entire season (Kipper Nichols saw more minutes as the season went on).
Unfortunately for Illinois, the Maryland game is early on in the season, on Dec. 3. But the Terrapins did lose several important pieces themselves. Probably their best player in several years - Trimble - has moved on. He led the team in scoring and was tied for the lead in assists. Damonte Dodd (6-foot-11) and LG Gill (6-foot-8) were two big men that are no longer with the team.
In total, only five players on the Maryland roster are upperclassmen. They’re nearly as young of a team as the Illini, so if Underwood can instill his style of play with team the team early on in the season, it could catch an equally inexperienced Maryland team off guard.
It will require the Illini big men to be able to protect the rim, but this is a reasonable task considering some of the players that the Terrapins lost.
How Illinois can lose:
A pair of athletic and offensively-talented sophomores, Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson, could cause some mismatch problems for the Illini. Both are 6-foot-7 and can score in several ways. They are great at cutting to the basket and spot up shooting. Huerter has a great pull up game, too.
In addition, Maryland has five players listed at 6-foot-9 or taller, which might prove to be a weakness for Illinois who will lean heavily on Black and Finke as the primary players in the four and five spots.
If the Illini get outmuscled in the paint, and Huerter or Jackson can help lead the offensive execution properly, Maryland could come out on top in this one. This is a concrete possibility considering how young the Illini are and how early on in the season this game is.
This is a tough pick, but I think that Maryland will come out on top in a close game . Illinois has home court advantage, but the Terrapins’ size will cause enough problems for Illinois on defense that the newly-implemented offense will have trouble covering up for.
Huerter is ready for a breakout year and will end the night with 20 points.
It will be a difficult loss for Illinois, but it will help them continue to improve their offensive game as the season goes on.